Windows 8: tablet as desktop coming to a desk near you

I’ve been noticing various articles about the impending Windows 8 release on OSNews appear recently, and it doesn’t look good. I’ve been using Linux a lot since about 2002, and one of the worst developments on the Linux desktop are environments intended to “unify” the desktop, laptop and tablet user experience when the three (tablets especially) are radically different. Ubuntu’s Unity, for example, was originally released for netbooks only in 2010 and was introduced for other computers in early 2011, to widespread condemnation; it is only in the present release that it has reached any semblance of stability. Windows 7 looks to be the last release of Windows in which the traditional Windows interface with the familiar desktop applications is the standard; Windows 8 will be dominated by Metro, which originates in the world of smartphones and its apps can only be run full-screen or tiled. Old apps will be run inside the so-called Explorer shell, which will function as an application in itself:

Contrary to popular belief, Metro is not a replacement for the Start Menu. Metro is a replacement for the Explorer Shell. The Explorer Shell itself has been turned into an application. Traditional applications run within this Explorer Shell, and cannot be managed from Metro. In other words, the Explorer Shell has become an application with a multiple document interface, running in Metro.

This, right here, is the main reason why Windows 8 is such a pain to use with a mouse and keyboard. You can’t directly switch to a desktop application; you always have to first switch to the Explorer Shell, and then switch to the desktop application you want running within the Explorer Shell. This is a convoluted way of using my computer, especially since Metro itself isn’t mouse-friendly to begin with, with finicky hot corners and UI elements that are too volatile.

Consider this. To switch to a Chrome browser tab, you have to: switch to the Explorer Shell in the Metro application switcher (and hope this doesn’t go wrong), switch to Chrome in the traditional taskbar, and then switch to the right tab within Chrome. This is insanity. Whenever I go through this in Windows 8, I hear this playing in my head.

It’s not a technical issue. Microsoft could easily integrate the two much more efficiently and more fluently if they wanted to. No, the real issue is that Microsoft doesn’t want to, because (and here’s the pill that’s so tough for some to swallow) the Explorer Shell is being deprecated. It’s dead. It needs to be cumbersome and unpleasant because Microsoft hopes this will make users demand Metro versions of their favourite applications.

I have two computers (a laptop and a desktop) and a smartphone. The two computers both run Linux (Ubuntu Precise), one also runs Windows, the other Mac OS X, and the smartphone runs Android. OSNews also recently published a chart showing how the rise of the smartphone has led to “new OS Wars”, with Android and Apple reducing Microsoft’s market share to what looks like less than 50% if smartphones are taken into consideration. If you judge market share to exclude phones, however, MS’s market share rises considerably, and this is how the market should be judged because people use computers and phones for entirely different things. A computer is something people buy once in every few years outright, while smartphones are usually distributed on contract; most people who can afford to have both. There are a lot of things you can do much better on a computer than on a phone or even a tablet, such as writing documents of any complexity or processing images. Storage capabilities are very much greater. Phones are mostly used, besides for talking through, for basic ‘snap’ photography, media playing and a subset of social networking.

There is no doubt that a lot of smartphones are being sold, that tablets and netbooks are enjoying some success and that these machines have computing power that would have been the province of very powerful desktop machines not that long ago, but if you go into any computer shop you will still see a lot of straightforward computers with keyboards, screens and mice or trackpads. Screens have been getting bigger, especially on the Mac platform but also on PCs as well, and the widescreen monitor is now standard, which it was not 10 years ago, because people want to watch videos on them and DVDs play in a widescreen aspect radio. Smartphones, on the other hand, are in portrait format by default. The computers which still fill the branches of PC World run a computer OS, such as Windows or Mac OS X. Some people do run Linux on them as well. Of course, an Android smartphone runs Linux as well, but Android and a computer version of Linux are totally different and run none of the same applications unless you install the Android software development kit which has an emulator.

This MSDN blog post explains the change to Metro in terms of the rise of smaller form factor computers with small touch screens: that the current Windows desktop originated in a time when computers were big, beige, plugged in all the time, and had no batteries, while today’s PCs are supposedly battery-powered and have touch screens. But where are all these machines? The only tablets I see in consumer computer shops run Android or iOS, operating systems designed for tablets. The laptops and desktop machines which are affordable have keyboards, screens and mice or trackpads, not touch screens. They are a niche product, and accommodating them is all fine but they must not be made the standard for desktop or laptop operating systems, because the majority of people who use machines with those form factors have the three standard input/output features. Nobody is seriously talking about making Android the standard on the Linux desktop, and Apple have kept the desktop/laptop Mac OS X and the smartphone/tablet iOS separate, although they have the same Unix underpinnings and some common features for programmers. Apple has integrated some features from iOS into Mac OS X and keeps doing so, but the Mac remains very much a desktop/laptop system with an OS designed for that. Meanwhile, the letters pages of the Linux press have been full of complaints about a “developer-knows-best mentality”, “stupid ideas” and of smartphone and tablet interfaces being forced on desktop and laptop users when they are plainly inappropriate, because the two types of computers are manifestly different.

Metro is quite an elegant user interface theme, but expecting users with large, cinema-aspect screens to run Metro apps that were designed for smartphones in full-screen mode simply does not work. It will also make developing apps that much more of a headache as the developer will have to consider the possibility that his app will be used on either a portrait-format smartphone or a cinema-aspect desktop or laptop screen. The logic of saving power by restricting how many programs have access to the screen does not work on a traditional desktop or laptop which is likely to be used plugged-in a lot of the time, or all the time (it should at least be switchable on and off, to provide that advantage on laptops). It seems that this is simply an attempt by Microsoft to use its desktop market share to manufacture a market for its smartphone OS, which currently has a very small market share and which already offers Metro, which has a small application base and does not resemble any other version of Windows other than in the name. According to Wikipedia, Metro apps will only be available through the Windows Store, so that further adds to Microsoft’s control over the platform (enabling them to veto cross-platform apps, for example) and the decline of general-purpose computing (that is, being able to use your own computer for whatever you want). The author of the article quoted above concludes, “I have the sneaking suspicion Windows 7’s going to be around for a while” — I hope it is, in the same way that DOS 4 was outlived by its predecessor in the early 1990s.

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